Monday, October 29, 2007

The Churchill Series - Oct. 29, 2007

(One of a series of weekday posts on the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

Today begins a two post series within the series. We'll look today at extracts from a letter Churchill wrote to two Cabinet members on May 11, 1940 and a memorandum he dictated to the Cabinet Secretary almost exactly six months later on Nov. 8. We'll see the two documents are very different in tone and treatment of Cabinet members.

Having set them out today, tomorrow we'll consider why they're difference in tone and treatment.

On May 11, 1940 Churchill began to carefully, sensitively and skillfully assert the powers of the Prime Minister’s office to which he’d been appointed the previous day as the Germans began their blitzkrieg attack in the West. During the first weeks of his premiership there were many who questioned his fitness to hold the office. They were ready “at the instant” to join in plotting to replace him.

Knowing that, on the morning of May 11 Churchill wrote a letter to the man he had just succeeded, Neville Chamberlain, a proud, really vain, man who had not resigned willingly and still commended considerable support within the Party as did Churchill’s rival for the premiership, Lord Edward Halifax, at the time Foreign Secretary.

After giving Chamberlain an account of meetings he’d just had, Churchill told Chamberlain that he had directed that no Cabinet officer would give up any housing quarters that came with the office for 30 days.

This was a break with customary practice which was that outgoing Cabinet officers vacate their housing quarters within a day or two of giving back their seals of office. In the case of Chamberlain, Churchill’s directive meant he could remain in the housing quarters at 10 Downing Street.

The letter continues and we see Churchill, still sensitive, begin to exercise his powers more forcefully but so carefully and wisely there’s nothing those who might challenge him that day can do but go along with him.

”I do not think there is any necessity for a Cabinet today, as the Armies and other Services are fighting in accordance with pre-arranged plans.

I should be very glad, however, if you and Edward [Halifax] would come to the Admiralty War Room at 12:30 P.M. so that we could look at the maps and talk things over.”
Well and good. Now prepare for a 180-degree turn.

Here's the Nov. 8, memorandum Churchill sent to Sir Edwards Bridges, a career civil servant who help the position of Secretary to the Cabinet.
Many of the executive departments naturally have set up and developed their own statistical branches, but there appears to be a separate statistical branch attached to the Ministerial Committee on Production, and naturally the Ministry of Supply’s statistical branch covers a very wide field. I have my own statistical branch under Professor Lindemann [An Oxford physicist, Churchill’s science advisor and close friend].

It is essential to consolidate and make sure that agreed figures only are used. The utmost confusion is caused when people argue on different statistical data. I wish all statistics to be concentrated in my own branch as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, from which alone the final authoritative working statistics will issue. The various departmental statistical branches will, of course, continue as at present, but agreement must be reached between them, and the Central Statistical Office.

Pray look into this, and advise me how my wish can be most speedily and effectively achieved.
No invitation in that memorandum to "talk things over."

What changed? Was it Churchill? Had he grown more confident of his abilities? Did events convince him that his hand was strengthened to the point where he could summarily say, in effect, "We'll play with my deck and according to my rules?"

Don't feel you have to wait until tomorrow to offer your answer(s). Feel free to comment on the thread here. There's an awful lot that can explain the difference in tone and treatment between the two documents.
Excerpts of the letter can be found in Their Finest Hour, vol.II of Churchill's The Second World War (Houghton Mifflin, 1949)(pgs. 10-11)

The full text of the memorandum can be found on pg. 684 of Their Finest Hour, vol. II of Churchill’s The Second World War. (Houghton Mifflin, 1949)